What Is the Proper Way to Prune Crape Myrtles?

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Crapemyrtles are small trees that are commonly found throughout the Southern landscape. These popular flowering trees are often called the “lilac of the south.”  Crapemyrtles have long panicles of flowers that show their bright white, pink, purple or red colors in the summer. If the showy flowers were not attractive enough, crapemyrtles are multi-stemmed trees that have showy exfoliating bark with colors ranging from shades of brown to gray.

Crapemyrtles are pruned during the late winter months before spring growth begins. A common mistake is made when crapemyrtles are pruned. Often the trees are pruned to nothing but the trunk with stubby limbs. Topping crapemyrtles, or giving crapemyrtles a “flat top hair cut,” causes the loss of the trees natural form and beauty. Because the topping of crapemyrtles causes the loss of the trees natural beauty, this practice is often referred to as “crape-murder.”  Proper pruning techniques for crapemyrtles should not include topping trees.

Topping trees may seem like the quickest solution to reducing a tree’s size, but it can lead to an unhealthier tree in the long run. When a tree is topped, a rapid growth of new limbs occurs. This new wood is poorly attached to the stubby limbs and can lead to more breaks and damage to the tree during wind or ice storms. Topping will cause rapid growth of numerous new limbs that elongate so quickly that the tree returns to its original height in a very short time, thus leading to future pruning. Topping also puts the tree under more stress which can lead to it being more susceptible to insects and diseases, resulting in an unhealthy tree and lead to tree death.

Frequently, crapemyrtles are cut back to a few stubby limbs because the tree was getting too large for the area it was planted in. Before planting crapemyrtles or any other plants, do a little research. Check to see what the plant’s size will be at maturation and what the height and width are, and take that into consideration when deciding on a location for the tree. A common mistake is that crapemyrtles are often considered shrubs when really they should be considered small trees. There are various types available from shrub to small tree types, ranging from 3 to 10 feet. Then there are larger types that can be from 20 to 25 feet in height. So, before planting crapemyrtles check to see what the mature size is of the cultivar you are considering and whether that mature size would fit in your selected location.

If topping is not the pruning practice to follow for a crapemyrtle, then what is the proper pruning technique to follow? Crapemyrtles don’t require a lot of pruning but there are several things that can be done to build a better crapemyrtle. In the first year after planting, you want to select three to five main trunks and then cut out any extras. Every year corrective pruning should be done. Corrective pruning would include removal of root suckers, water sprouts, and crossing branches. Yearly pruning would also include the removal of any dead or diseased branches. Thinning of the canopy may not be necessary, but you can thin the canopy some by cutting back a few selected branches to where they join larger-diameter branches. When pruning, you want to consider the tree’s natural growth habit. Crapemyrtles have a vase shaped canopy with the top branches fanning out from the multi-stemmed trunk. Any wild shoots or branches that do not fit within this growth habit can be removed.

The goal when pruning a crapemyrtle should be to develop a strong limb structure that will support and produce a canopy of blooms. Since crapemyrtles should require only minor pruning, with a little effort every year, following proper pruning techniques, you can enjoy this attractive tree that graces us with bright colors during the hot summer days.